After Reggie Smith was unable to be declared eligible by the NCAA in time for UNLV’s trip to face 19th-ranked Illinois in Chicago over the weekend, his teammates decided before the game to dedicate their performance to the sophomore Marquette transfer.
The Rebels (11-2) then went out and trounced the Illini, 64-48, at the United Center—the arena that Smith dreamed of playing in one day while growing up in the city’s south suburbs.
Now, Smith owes one to his teammates.
He’ll try to deliver as best he can in his unexpectedly delayed debut Monday night when UNLV hosts Louisiana-Monroe (1-10) at 7 p.m. at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“Those guys are working hard—They work hard in practice, in the games, all the time,” Smith said. “So me being able to come help them, get some minutes and give them some rest, do what I do when I get in the game, I think that’ll help this team a lot.”
Dave Rice said he doesn’t know exactly how many minutes Smith will play right off the bat, noting that it will depend on a few things.
“The game will dictate it and his conditioning will dictate things,” he said. “He’s such a good athlete and works so hard, he’s close (to game shape). Still, there’s no substitute for game experience.
“Reggie will have a lot of adrenaline, so my suspicion is he will get tired quickly initially, then he’ll get his second wind. I know how excited he is to put a uniform on and check into the game.”
The home fans will likely be just as excited as Smith himself.
When he transferred in from Marquette following last year’s fall semester, a quick YouTube search introduced locals to the 6-foot guard’s 43-inch vertical leap and explosive athletic abilities.
Then, when Lon Kruger and his staff left and Dave Rice came in with his uptempo offensive philosophy, it was almost a blessing in disguise for Smith.
“The system at Marquette was probably more disciplined—We didn’t have as much freedom,” he said. “Even though those guys push the ball, it’s still a system with discipline with it. With ours, I think it gives us the freedom to do what we’re capable of doing but still have some type of discipline with what we’re doing.
“I believe I can fit in right away with this.”
He showed quick-fit potential in at the team’s Scarlet and Gray scrimmage back in mid-October.
The night began with Smith wowing the crowd with a series of impressive throwdowns during an impromptu dunk contest. Then, in the scrimmage itself, he scored 10 points, displaying not only his lightning-quick first step that allows him access to the basket almost whenever he wants it, but also his improved outside shot. Smith came to UNLV last year as a fair outside shooter, but countless repetitions both during and after practices have made him much more consistent from long range.
No matter how productive he is early on, though, simply being at Rice’s disposal off of the bench makes him valuable.
Through 13 games, starting guards Oscar Bellfield (32.3 minutes per game) and Anthony Marshall (30.9) are first and second on the team in average playing time, respectively. Justin Hawkins (26.0) leads all reserves in minutes by a wide margin, while fifth-year senior Kendall Wallace (15.0) is giving as much as he can while dealing with lingering right knee issues.
Bellfield could use the break more than anyone right now, as he’s been mired in a shooting slump ever since playing 47 minutes in a double-overtime win at UC Santa Barbara on Nov. 30. In the team’s four games since then, he’s just 11-of-38 (28.9 percent) from the floor.
Marshall has also had a couple of rough nights of late, and he said last week that adding Smith to the mix will allow him and Bellfield to not have to hold back at all when they’re on the floor, knowing there is now added depth behind them.
“We know that Reggie is going to have a very good career at UNLV, but in the short-term, one of the advantages for us is adding another athletic guard who can help us force tempo when teams decide they want to hold the ball,” Rice said. “There’s not a more athletic player in our program than Reggie, and we are going to be patient with him. You never know how long it takes a guy to get into game shape, shake the rust off.”
Smith said that right when he left Marquette, there were some lingering doubts in his mind as to whether he was making the right decision. He said those faded quickly once he committed to UNLV. The already positive fit solidified even more when Rice came to town, and Smith feels like he was born to play in the first-year coach’s system.
Now it’s time to prove that theory correct.
“The speed of the game, he loves to push the ball and I love to push the ball,” he said. “Quick scoring, being aggressive on defense and offense at the same time, that’s what my game plan is, that’s how I play. Him coming in, we have the same mentality.”